Bush tries to nurture `special relationship' in Blair summit

Friday, February 23rd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair are going into their first meeting facing plenty of issues that could test the ``special relationship'' between their countries.

Bush and Blair were holding their first face-to-face session Friday in bucolic mountains at the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland. The hope was that the face time would help them establish a solid friendship ``before they have to address issues as they come up,'' said Bush's national security adviser Condoleezza Rice.

The issues already have come up. The two leaders are getting together after their recent joint action to contain Iraq's military and amid questions on how they should view Russia's sketchy plan for a missile defense system and whether a possible European defense force will ruffle feathers in NATO.

Blair gave no indication in an interview Friday with ABC's ``Good Morning America'' that he is ready to ease pressure on Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. ``The thing that always surprises me is how short people's memories are,'' Blair said.

``This is somebody who after all killed thousands of his own people with chemical weapons, who launched a war against Iran where a million people died, who then launched another war against Kuwait.''

U.S. and British planes have stepped up attacks on Iraqi radar sites because ``in January Iraq made more attacks on allied planes than in the whole of last year,'' Blair said.

Beyond international issues are the political contrasts between Bush, a conservative Republican, and Blair, head of Britain's Labor Party who patterned himself after Bush's predecessor, Bill Clinton.

The White House insisted that having such a tall order in a first meeting will not rock the ``special relationship'' cultivated by President Reagan and his fellow conservative, Margaret Thatcher; nurtured during the Persian Gulf crisis by Bush's father and Thatcher and, in midcrisis, John Major; then built up even more by Clinton and Blair.

``Those words really do mean something,'' Rice said. ``Our relations with the British are broad, they are deep, they are of common culture and common history, not to mention common language.''

The two leaders planned to talk about the idea of forming a defense force for Europe and worries in the United States that such a force would undermine the North Atlantic Treaty Organization alliance that has endured since early in the Cold War.

Rice said the United States and Britain are ``on common footing'' about the force. ``It really, now, will come down to implementation,'' she said.

``We believe this is a good thing, as long as it is consistent with the enhancement of NATO,'' Rice said. ``We believe that we share that goal with the British.''

Like Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien, Blair has not taken a firm position on the national missile defense system that Bush has made a priority for his administration. The British want Bush to consult more with Russia before deciding.

Blair told Forbes magazine in a recent interview that missile defense ``is definitely in the box marked `handle with care' on all sides.'' But he held open the prospect of finding a solution that ``meets America's objectives and other people's concerns,'' suggesting Britain might serve as a bridge between the United States and other nations on the question.

Rice said Bush envisions that Blair can provide vital assistance in shaping European Union policies on defense or trade or other issues. But, she said, Bush does not expect Blair to serve as ``some sort of intermediary'' between the United States and Europe.

``I don't think the British would want to be put in that position,'' Rice said.

However, Rice said Bush would seek ``an assessment and advice'' from Blair on establishing relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Relations between the United States and Russia have grown frostier since Bush took office in January. The chill could extend considering the recent arrest of an American FBI agent on charges that he spied for Russia.

Russia opposes the U.S. plans for a missile defense system and countered by floating its own plan this week for a missile defense proposal for Europe. The United States is wary of Russia's sale of missile technology to North Korea, Iran and other countries.

Bush said Thursday he found the Russian plan for missile defense an encouraging sign ``that they recognize that there are new threats in the post-Cold War era, threats that require theater-based, anti-ballistic missile systems.''